Slovakian reporter promises to finish the story of a murdered colleague

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Amid conspiracy theories and protests, Prime Minister Robert Fico's coalition government could fall apart, analysts said.

"This murder put political corruption into focus,” said Aneta Világi, a political scientist with Comenius University in Bratislava. “Many are of the point of view that this is too much. People actually lost their lives because somebody tried to hide this level of corruption. The effect is quite tremendous. It's like an earthquake.”

On Feb. 25, 27-year-old investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kursnirova were found shot dead in their home outside Bratislava.

At the time of his death, Kuciak – an enterprising journalist whose use of public data to reveal corruption within the Slovakian government made him one of the nation's most promising reporters – was about to publish a story revealing ties between the Calabria, Italy-based crime syndicate 'Ndrangheta and officials within the prime minister's office.

Kuciak's story began as an investigation into why Prime Minister Fico, whose tenure has been plagued by corruption scandals within his cabinet, hired a young former Miss Universe contestant, Maria Troskova, as one of his assistants despite her lack of experience.

Kuciak, working with an international team of journalists, traced Troskova to an Italian businessman with close ties to 'Ndrangheta. Their research revealed that the crime group had infiltrated impoverished parts of the country and forged relationships with local politicians to misappropriate European Union funds.

Martin Turcek, an investigative journalist who worked closely with Kuciak at the digital outlet Aktuality.sk, told the Washington Times that uncovering corruption is "business as usual" in Slovakia, a former communist stronghold where Soviet-backed apparatchiks used to run the country without regard for civil rights.

In the past, Kuciak had uncovered cases of multimillion-dollar tax fraud between business interests and government officials without receiving threats of violence, said Turcek. However, Kuciak's latest investigation was of a different caliber.

"He's a person who devoted his life to making this country better," said Turcek. "Unfortunately, that's what probably ended his life."

Prime Minister Fico denounced the "attack on the freedom of press and democracy in Slovakia" shortly after the bodies were found and offered $1.24 million for information about the killings.

Two days after the announcement, Aktuality.sk and their international partners published Kuciak's report linking the prime minister's office to the Italian mafia. Police quickly arrested seven individuals named in the article on suspicion of murder – including an Italian business associate of the prime minister's allies. But authorities later released the suspects due to lack of evidence.

That only provoked an electorate already reeling from both the murders and the corruption allegations that had come to light.

On March 3, protests erupted in 25 cities, including the capital Bratislava, where around 20,000 citizens led by President Andrej Kiska marched on the government's headquarters chanting "enough of Fico" and "an attack on journalists is an attack on all of us."

The calls were heard at the highest levels of government.

Culture Minister Marek Madaric stepped down on Feb. 28, saying he couldn't "identify with the fact that a journalist was killed during my tenure." Additionally, two top officials in Fico's government resigned due to allegations of their ties to the Italian crime syndicate.

"There's a huge public distrust of the state," President Kiska told reporters March 4. "This distrust is justified."

Kiska has demanded that the prime minister call snap elections or expel suspected corrupt politicians from his government. Fico refused, accusing Kiska and other critics of playing politics and seeking to "dance on the graves" of Kuciak and his slain fiancée.

Fico also implied that the president was colluding with billionaire Hungarian philanthropist George Soros to dismantle the government, citing an alleged meeting between the two in September of last year as proof of the theory.

"I really wonder why no foreign ministry official took part in this meeting," he said, adding that the pressure on his government after the murder was "an attempt at total destabilization” by foreign forces.

Slovakian opposition parties are now calling for a vote of no confidence in parliament, while one of Fico's coalition partners, the liberal Most-Hid party representing Slovakia's Hungarian minority, is reportedly considering departing Fico’s ruling coalition over the controversy.

"It's impossible for this party to sustain in a ruling coalition with a prime minister who is praising these toxic, absolutely silly narratives," said Grigorij Mesežnikov, a political scientist and president of the Institute for Public Affairs in Slovakia, referring to Most-Hid. "Fico wants to survive at any price. But without this party, the government is over."

In the meantime, investigative journalist Turcek and his colleagues at Aktuality.sk said they have banded together with other prominent journalists in the country to continue Kuciak's work.

"There's still a lot more storylines that haven't been published that we are working on right now," he said. "It's only the beginning of this story."

A version of this story can be found in The Washington Times.
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